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Fabricating

Cloud of steel

By Gretchen Salois

Above: The first phase of planning and design for the New Rome/EUR  Convention Hall and Hotel—The Cloud—started in 1998 and was finally completed in 2016.

Steel sophistication serves as the meeting place for industry

January 2017 - Canvassing the streets of Rome reveals a heated frenzy. The marriage of modernity and ancient ruin give the city an unmistakable hurried vibe unlike that of any other place in the world. Reminders of the once dominant Roman Empire are scattered everywhere as people hustle through their daily lives. To perpetuate business, trade and prosperity, a nearly two-decade-long dream of architects and designers Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas has come to life in the new Rome-EUR Convention Centre and Hotel: La Nuvola. Set to house the movers and shakers of industry, the complex design demands attention and combines the cool, despotic strength of steel which houses the light-infused, steel-ribbed Cloud, an example of how that same steel can be manipulated to appear ethereal. 

The center is located south of the city center of Rome in the EUR residential and business district, bringing an influx of business to an area housing the intimidating relics of former dictator Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime.

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Intricate weaving geometries, connected arteries that piece together a futuristic setting represented by welded and bolted bars and sheets of steel, greet visitors to the center. Photo: Moreno Maggi

No strangers to otherworldly forms, Studio Fuksas has left its indelible mark on such modern, elegant projects as the Shenzhen Bao’an airport in Guangdong, China, and Rhike Park music theater and exhibition hall in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Upon entering the center, visitors are greeted by simple yet intricate weaving geometries, connected arteries that piece together a futuristic setting fashioned from welded and bolted bars and sheets of steel. Each slope and bend appears weightless—except that enough steel was used for the center to erect five Eiffel Towers.

Harnessing nature

In Rome, the architects labored over 18 years to design, plan and oversee construction of Rome’s convention center. “The idea was developed while observing nature, looking at clouds … wind,” says Doriana Fuksas. Born in Rome, she has worked with husband Massimiliano Fuksas since 1985 and served as director in charge of Fuksas Design since 1997.

“This project allowed us to realize a building without [traditional] form,” says Massimiliano Fuksas, head of the firm and himself a native of Rome. The Theca, an outer shell that encapsulates The Cloud, represents contrasting rationalist architecture within the former and a sculptural, more fluid representation within baroque architecture. 

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Using 26,000 tons of structural and bar steel, sub-structures were assembled by pre-welding or by bolting joints on site. Photo: Moreno Maggi

From 1998 to 2016, the team at Fuksas painstakingly remained true to every detail in the original designs. Between Studio Fuksas; general contractor Società Italiana per Condotte d’Acqua SpA; engineering/planning by A.I. Engineering of Torino; and fabrication by Studio Majowiecki and Studio Sarti—every last effect and nuance was considered. Teams from XU-Acoustique, Parigi and A.I. Engineering executed the acoustics while Speirs & Major Associates, London, handled lighting throughout the buildings.

The malleability and tensile strength of steel allowed the architects to achieve the effect of weightlessness housed “in a rigid form,” says Massimiliano Fuksas. Using 26,000 tons of structural and bar steel, sub-structures were assembled by pre-welding or by bolting joints on site. “Steel’s flexibility and adaptability to any architectural language is reflective,” Massimiliano Fuksas says. “Steel allows us to challenge height limitations.”

The Theca is 39 m tall, 70 m wide and 175 m long and features both steel and reinforced concrete. The façade is made from stratified extra-bright glass and stratified lamellar extra-bright glass. The Cloud is steel while The Blade, which houses the hotel, is steel and reinforced concrete. 

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Fabricators were hoisted by rope to reach the twists and bends of metal. Photo: Archivio Fuksas

The €239 million earthquake-proof complex contains auditoriums, exhibition spaces and a hotel, all spanning 55,000 m2. The building contains insulators with horizontal rigidity that absorbs the movement of small earthquakes and is designed to quell the effects from larger ones. 

The Cloud’s plates were designed using a pantograph and then plasma cut. Pieces were joined throughout the project using shielded metal arc welding, submerged arc welding, gas metal arc welding and flux-cored arc welding. 

Complex flexibility

During the production phase, welding methods were chosen for each part of the design based on timing and cost. The complexity of the building required several types of structural steel profiles and plates. Special foundations were laid to house underground structures. The excavation process presented considerable obstacles. The Cloud’s shape, size and static position posed a separate set of challenges for fabricators. 

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The Cloud’s cocoon-like structure is covered in 15,000 m2 of advanced membrane fiber-glass and flame-retardant silicon. The Theca supports The Cloud's frame. Photo: Archivio Fuksas

Studio Sarti fabricators were among those welding plates. In order to fasten pieces together, welders were hoisted by rope to reach the material, working while suspended in mid air. Where possible, pre-welded pieces were bolted together.

Handling and assembling portals that make up the main elements of the structure supporting The Theca was itself a complex process, says Massimiliano Fuksas. 

With flexibility in mind, The Theca, Cloud and Blade are laid out so that spaces are interchangeable and able to accommodate large or small conferences, lectures or events, with maximum seating of 8,000 between the auditorium in The Cloud and large conference rooms. 

Galvanized steel stairs connect to the underground floor and finally, the main building and Cloud. Steel plate and tubing were used to make the newel (the column supporting a winding staircase), the parapets and stairs.

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Five levels within The Cloud are joined by escalators and walkways. The internal auditorium uses cherry wood panels to ensure sound does not spread into the supporting Theca. Photo: Leonardo Finotti

Energy performance

Environmental sustainability was integral to the project. “The design of the center has integrated air conditioning that will be carried out by reversible heat pump,” explains Fuksas. “This system is capable of achieving high energy performance whilst reducing energy consumption.” 

A natural ventilation system uses water filtered from the nearby EUR Lake. The roof is adorned with photovoltaic panels made from glass and silicon wafers to help collect energy while protecting the building from overheating. 

Attempting the weightless aesthetic of a cloud from steel proved challenging to designers and fabricators alike. In order to contain The Cloud within the convention center, engineers went three stories underground in order to ensure any excavation or expansion would remain within the property’s boundaries. Reinforced concrete diaphragms with tie-down elements minimize strain on the soil beneath the foundations of surrounding buildings. 

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The center was earthquake-proofed, designed to withstand  seismic waves both large and small. Photo: Leonardo Finotti

Achieving The Cloud’s shape required engineers to make sure the steel bars could flow and bend as needed while meeting structural regulations.

Fabricated from steel, travertine and glass, Rome’s new convention center is Fuksas’ mediation on architectural styles, contrasting the rationalist with baroque; and his nonconformist battle against restrictions based on what is considered traditional form and style. All this is exemplified by containing The Cloud inside the rigid steel and glass Theca. To get the feeling of being in the clouds, you have to go inside—and it works. FFJ

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